HC Deb 15 March 1977 vol 928 cc333-40

8.55 p.m.

Mr. Caerwyn E. Roderick (Brecon and Radnor)

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for inconveniencing him by asking him to be here and to the Officers of the House for delaying proceedings.

At the risk of boring the House I wish to question again the proposal to build a new dam in the Elan Valley in my constituency, namely, the Craig Goch. This is a joint venture to be undertaken by two water authorities, the Severn-Trent Water Authority and the Welsh National Water Development Authority. The Severn-Trent authority would benefit from the development by receiving about 90 per cent. of the supplies, if it goes ahead as envisaged at present, and the Welsh authority would receive 10 per cent. of the supplies from the reservoir.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for drought—perhaps we should call him the Minister for floods these days—has said that he cannot intervene in the argument over the size of the proposed dam because he has a quasi-judicial rôle to play. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales takes a similar view, and I have no doubt that they are right to do so. However, if Ministers are not to intervene, we are in some difficulty.

A consultative document was published last year stating that a national water authority will be created with powers to intervene over and above those of the regional water authorities. In the meantime, until legislation is produced—and I understand that legislation on this subject is pending—there will be a vacuum. These two water authorities can go ahead with their own plans, but if we think that a different plan ought to be pursued in the national interest, it seems that no one can intervene to overrule the water authorities.

It would be a tragedy if a start were made on the proposal to build the Craig Goch dam at the minimum suggested height, as proposed at present, when we ought to build a larger dam in the national interest. There are doubts about building the smaller dam. As my hon. Friend knows, there is a delay due to fears expressed by the Severn-Trent authority. It would be a pity if the smaller dam were built.

Decisions of this nature should be taken out of the hands of bodies such as the water authorities. The project is designed so that the height could later be raised, but unfortunately the initial choice determines the kind of structure. We prefer a concrete buttress dam rather than a rock-filled darn, because a concrete dam would be more pleasing aesthetically and would be safer.

In view of our experiences of the last 12 months and particularly last summer's drought, does my hon. Friend think that a decision on the size of the dam should be taken by the two water authorities, which will be able to get the water they need from the smaller dam, when other parts of the country could ultimately benefit from the project? The present proposal for a smaller dam would provide water for Wales and for the Severn-Trent authority until the end of this century. But, in view of the wider considerations, if we are to move towards a national grid system, the Craig Goch project would be central to that system. In that sense we would move away from the idea of constructing a series of small dams all over the country and instead we could build a much larger dam which would disturb many fewer people.

When I first came to the House in 1970 I was involved in a controversy about a proposal to construct a small dam in my constituency. I argued against it at the time because I said it would disturb so many farm holdings and residents, but at the end of the day would not supply needs for far enough ahead. There was a larger project in another area which could have been extended to transfer water from one area to another. I see Craig Goch in the same way, so that transfers of water could take place into other areas of the country.

If my hon. Friend the Minister intends to speak about his quasi-judicial rôle and intends to opt out of intervention, may I ask him to advise me about to whom I may turn for intervention at this stage? The two authorities are rightly looking only to their own needs. One cannot expect them to look further, but we have to look far beyond this point and I beg my hon. Friend the Minister to advise us to whom we can best turn for advice on intervention.

9.2 p.m.

Mr. Mike Noble (Rossendale)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Roderick) for arranging this debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for coming along to answer it. My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor has raised the subject of water supply and its problems as they affect his constituents. I should like to widen the debate by looking at one group with a considerable interest in water.

I do not suppose that the public ever paid as much regard to the supply of water as they did last year. In my constituency standpipes were put up in the streets—it was one of the few constituencies in the North-West where that happened. A great deal of attention was devoted to the problem at the time, and considerable groups have emerged since then. They deal with the problems facing industry and how it would continue with a shortage of water, with the problems facing the consumer, and with the problems facing anglers. I wish to speak briefly about the last group.

It is sometimes not realised that well over 2 million people regard themselves as anglers and that angling is probably the most popular outdoor sport in the country. Yet often the activities of water authorities run contrary to the interests of anglers, and frequently one gets the impression—as an angler, I do—that the interests of this group are forgotten when plans are being made.

One of the points which emerged last year when plans were being laid for a national water grid through which water could be transferred from one part of the country to another at a time of shortage was that this raised severe problems for anglers who were interested in migratory fish such as salmon, sea trout and so forth. No one fully understands how salmon return to the rivers of their birth, but many anglers are afraid that if a national water grid is introduced, it might disturb the natural pattern, and the opportunity to fish for migratory fish would be reduced accordingly.

I recall reading an article in The Sunday Times last year indicating the difficulties that would have to be faced. I hope that my hon. Friend will take this point on board and will ensure that consultations take place with angling interests before any such plans are put into effect.

In a similar vein, there was an announcement last week that, despite the amount of rain we are having at present, there could be a severe water shortage in the North-West within about 20 years. It was announced on television that four possible schemes for dealing with that water shortage were being considered. Two of them were in the Lake District, one at Haweswater. There was a third scheme for a Morecambe Bay barrage and a fourth scheme at Hellifield on the Ribble.

The interesting point about the television programme was that environmentalists were present to put forward their point of view but no account was taken of angling interests. Yet if one considers the benefits against the costs, there can be little doubt that the most effective scheme would be for the Morecambe Bay barrage to be developed. This would not only provide a large fresh water lake but, in addition, would provide a highway cutting the corner off on the long road to Barrow.

In the foreseeable future Barrow could become an important development area if gas is found in the Irish Sea. At the moment the road to Barrow is long and tedious. The Morecambe Bay barrage would resolve the problem of water supplies and would at no cost to the environment or to anglers—rather an improvement to the environment and further facilities for all kinds of leisure pursuits on water—enable the North-West not only to meet the demand for water but also most probably supply other areas.

However, if the scheme at Haweswater or the other scheme in the Lake District were introduced, it would have serious environmental effects. Similarly, the scheme at Hellifield on the Ribble would also have serious environmental effects. I believe that that scheme could effectively destroy the possibility of migratory fish, such as salmon and sea trout, on the Ribble, because the areas where the salmon spawn would probably be destroyed. That would be a serious loss not simply to present anglers but to future generations who might wish to be involved in this sport.

A further problem with regard to the angling fraternity concerns pollution. This is closely related to the problem of water supply itself. Anyone who has walked along a river which is normally alive with fish and who has seen the pollution caused by a chemical plant, or some other form of pollution, will know what a horrifying sight it is to see literally hundreds of fish dying or dead on the surface of the river. Those fish cannot be replaced and their deaths will result in the non-creation of thousands of other fish.

The measures that the Government have at their disposal to deal with pollution are insufficient. My suggestion for dealing with industrial pollution would be initially to require every new factory sited on a river to have its effluent point above the point at which it takes water out of the river. By doing so the firm would have an interest in making sure that it was not taking in heavily polluted water for its own purposes. That is the kind of control that I believe to be necessary if we are to make any progress whatever with this serious problem of pollution in our water supplies.

A practice that is causing a great deal of distress to fishermen, particularly those involved in seeking migratory fish is the excessive netting of those fish in estuaries. As well as being a serious environmental threat and detrimental to the interests of the angler, people involved in netting are making a killing, literally, at the expense of many others. This practice should be much more effectively controlled.

Since the water reorganisation, the North-West Water Authority now covers an area from Calisle almost to the Midlands. It did an excellent job during the drought which could not have been done under the old structure, but all is not perfect. Anglers have a strong criticism of the authority.

Many anglers have relatively modest means and do not wish to travel from Rossendale, my constituency, or Burnley, where I live, to the area around Carlisle to fish, yet they pay a licence charge to cover the whole area. The authority refuses to budge, but there is no reason why part-area licences, at a reduced cost, should not be introduced. There are also proposals, which should be carefully examined, for the charges to be increased.

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your indulgence in allowing me to make some points which are important to anglers. This subject is not often raised in the House.

9.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Roderick) on seizing the opportunity earlier this evening of requesting an additional Adjournment debate. It does not make him any more popular with Ministers, but his constituents will see it as evidence that they have an alert and concerned Member. The short notice does make things difficult. My hon. Friend is right: I do intend to talk about the quasi-judicial rôle of the Secretary of State.

We operate at the moment under the Water Act 1973, brought in by Conservative Members, who could be on the empty Benches opposite. The people responsible for the water supply are the water authorities, on which the local authorities are in a majority. Hon. Members who write to me and the Minister of State a good deal could get in touch with the chairmen of those authorities and the public could contact them through their local councils.

On the subject of Craig Goch, it is virtually certain that there will be a public inquiry if an order is made for any scheme of the kind described by my hon. Friend. After such an inquiry, the inspector's report is referred to the Secretary of State for decision. That is what prevents me from stating any views tonight. I am greatly tempted to do so by some of the things that my hon. Friend said, but I may not. When that inquiry is held, there should be a consideration of the full range of options, not just those brought up by the water authorities.

My hon. Friend was quite right to say that the Severn-Trent authority and the Welsh National Water Development Authority have considered jointly the possible scheme for a reservoir at Craig Goch. They believe that a 373-metre level dam would satisfy their needs at Severn-Trent, Wales and Wessex until the next century. Incidentally, that is not the depth of the dam but its height above sea level when the reservoir is completed. They have looked at the possibility of going beyond that level to 385 metres or 400 metres.

Some estimate of the costs of the various schemes has been made. A 373-metre dam would cost £39 million, a 385-metre dam would cost £70 million, and a 400-metre dam would cost £100 million. There have been some doubts in the National Water Council—I am not expressing an opinion of the Department on this—about the technical feasibility of 400-metre dam, not from the point of view of construction, but from the effect it may have on the upper Severn.

My hon. Friend asked me to whom he should turn for information. He should go, first, in this case to the Welsh authority and, secondly, the National Water Council. The council does not have the powers we would expect it to have under the proposed legislation, but it would certainly help with information. During the next few days, the Welsh and the Severn-Trent authorities will probably be discussing with the National Water Council and with the Department the national implications of the scheme. The views of other regional water authorities will be taken into account.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to my hon. Friend on a number of occasions about this subject. I am sure that regional water authorities will keep the public informed, and the public in Wales and England will have an opportunity to participate in a public inquiry.

There is no vacuum at present. We have had consultations, but plans of the water authorities are going ahead where possible. We hope to produce a White Paper on possible future legislation in the late spring and the House will have an opportunity to discuss the question before then. The difference between a national water authority and the National Water Council would be on the matter of strategic planning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Noble) also seized the opportunity with great effect, and I know that he will not expect me to answer all his points. The first Adjournment debate which I ever initiated as a Back-Bencher was about the pollution of rivers in South-East Lancashire. In the nine years since then there has been a considerable improvement in those rivers. I can safely say that, despite restrictions on public expenditure, money spent to prevent pollution has not declined recently.

I visited my hon. Friend's constituency last summer and I saw the standpipes. His area has never been under water since. He realised that the drought and the fact that we were saved from its worst effects was no joking matter, as some people thought.

He mentioned anglers. Sport is another sphere of influence of my Department. I agree that angling is an enormously important sport and it has the largest following of any sport in the country.

I noted what my hon. Friend said about the need for proper facilities for licensing and for watching conservation, another aspect of my Department's work. There ought to be consultation between anglers and the regional water authorities. We try where possible to see that anglers are represented on a water authority.

As a North-West Member, I echo all that my hon. Friend said about the importance of the North West Water Authority. As a native of Manchester, I was always brought up to believe that while the pyramids might be among the seven wonders of the world, the Manchester Corporation waterworks were also among the seven wonders. I am sure that the North-West has been very appreciative of the foresight of the city fathers of Manchester and Liverpool during recent years.

There will be plenty of opportunity for debating water supply and other relevant matters, such as the disposal of dirty water. I note what my hon. Friends have said, and I shall let them have a reply in due course.